BRUSSELS As NATO defense chiefs convene Thursday for a second day of talks on the Ukraine crisis, reaching agreement on specific steps to counter a more assertive Russia will likely prove elusive as national interests sometimes diverge.
For NATO, the heart of the challenge is bridging a gap between allies in the east, who seek a more muscular regional military posture to deal with Russia, and those in the west, notably Germany, who have urged a more cautious approach toward Moscow.
Its no secret where the differences are, and there have been tough discussions, said one military official from eastern Europe, who asked not to be identified while describing the mood at the outset of talks in Brussels on Wednesday. The outcome and final effect is what matters, but this is a marriage of 28 nations and consensus can be hard.
NATOs crisis response capabilities were a primary focus of the closed door discussions on Wednesday as defense chiefs examined how tensions with Russia will shape NATO in the future.
One of the most pressing issues which the chiefs of defense will consider is the implications of Russias actions in and around Ukraine, Gen. Knud Bartels, chairman of the NATO Military Committee, said in an opening statement Wednesday. Russias annexation of territory in a sovereign nation on NATOs borders has to cast a shadow of insecurity across the Alliances eastern flank and has potentially serious implications for the region and beyond.
Defense chiefs also met on Wednesday with Ukrainian military officials, where closed-door discussions focused on NATO support for Ukrainian military reform efforts.
The turmoil in Ukraine comes as NATO is winding down its combat mission in Afghanistan, which will conclude at the end of the year. While planning continues for a small, post-2014 training mission in the country, the downsizing in Afghanistan means NATO can turn more attention to other regions, Bartels said.
The end of NATOs ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) operation this year brings with it a potential strategic inflection point and the opportunity and capacity for the alliance to refocus its military capability towards a broader range of potential future threats, Bartels said. As we have seen in recent months, the global security situation remains fragile and unpredictable, and the alliance is increasingly surrounded by an arc of instability from Ukraine, to Syria to the Sahel.
Meanwhile, questions have emerged over NATOs readiness to respond should Russia seek to flex its muscle in other parts of the Continent.
If Russia were to launch a surprise attack on a country bordering a NATO nation, the alliance would struggle to generate an immediate respond, according to an internal alliance memo obtained by the German magazine Der Spiegel.
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NATO defense chiefs to review alliance readiness